12/17/2004 12:00AM

Black Bart story deserved better end

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - At the conclusion of the third race at Hollywood Park on Dec. 19, 2003, trainer Troy Bainum was pretty much convinced that he had just wasted $16,000 of owner Tom Metzger's money.

Black Bart, a 4-year-old son of Stage Colony, had just finished last at six furlongs for the $16,000 tag. Going in, Bainum figured he was worth the gamble, at least on paper, since there would be plenty of room for Black Bart to maneuver in the condition books back home in Arizona. But last place? Could it be he wasn't even worth $16,000?

Turns out, Black Bart was made for the desert after all. By the time the 2003-04 season ended, Black Bart had become a bonafide fairy tale. He was honored as Turf Paradise horse of the meeting.

Black Bart's Arizona fans continued to follow their star. Viewing from afar, they raised the rooftops of their air-conditioned simulcast bunkers as he won a pair of stakes for California-breds during the summer stand at Hollywood Park. When he returned to Phoenix in November to run in the Walter Cluer Memorial, it was hail the conquering hero. Black Bart responded with a seven-length victory in course-record time.

It was also Black Bart's farewell. Last Saturday at Hollywood, just shy of his first anniversary under Bainum's care, Black Bart was battling for second behind Truly a Judge in the Native Diver Handicap when his right hind ankle gave way. End of fairy tale.

X-rays taken at Hollywood's backstretch clinic offered no hope. The joint was luxated, defined as the loss of integrity to one or more of the joint ligaments, and about as irreparable as a hind leg injury could be. Six days later, Bainum was still choking back his emotions.

"If there was any chance at all that he could have been saved, he would be alive right now," said Bainum, 34. "He couldn't put any weight on it. There was no support from the ankle down. There was nothing you could do but give him a big hug and a kiss, and then go cry for about three days."

Black Bart was Bainum's first headline horse.

"He made it special coming to the barn," Bainum said. "He had his mannerisms in the way he trained. Watching him go to the track was like being a proud papa. Going into the Native Diver, I told Mr. Metzger he'd never acted better, never trained better. He was even more focused and composed in the paddock than he'd even been."

While Black Bart's remains were being prepared for shipping to the necropsy study unit of the University of California-Davis, Bainum had a long, lonely road trip back to his Phoenix base to deal with the loss of his horse.

"I got there Monday afternoon to run one, and everybody started coming up to me," Bainum said. "I was getting tears in my eyes all over again. But you can't just walk away, not when you've got 30 or so other horses to consider."

The loss of a horse like Black Bart ripples through the business like a computer virus. He could be counted on for a race a month - rare durability these days - and his fan base crossed state lines, which means that handicappers were betting with both their heads and their hearts.

The temptation is to cast around for someone or something to blame. Once past the natural fragility of the breed, the usual scenarios are led by either the condition of the racetrack or some type of stable neglect, then stir in the added elements of year-round racing and relentless economic pressures. It is difficult to point a finger in any specific direction.

Hollywood Park has experienced a higher number of catasrophic breakdowns at this meet than in winters past, many of them clustered around the main track's recovery from rainstorms earlier this month. Of particular alarm is the fact that there have been three fatalities attributed to hind leg injuries.

"That is very unusual," said Dr. Steve Buttgenbach, a widely respected veterinary surgeon and anesthesiologist who has been serving as a temporary official track vet during the current Hollywood Park meet. "You can go years without seeing injuries like this.

"It just didn't make sense," Buttgenbach said. "The three injuries happened at different areas of the racetrack. I thought there might be something in the shoeing, but all three were practically flat-shod behind. A little toe grab, and that was it. Hopefully, this has been a terrible coincidence. We won't - at least I hope we won't - see another one of these for four or five years."

In the meantime, for whatever reason, the lofty reputation of the Hollywood Park main track has taken a hit. In recent years, no surface on the Southern California circuit has enjoyed more consistent praise.

"I love training there," Bainum said. "I seem to have a lot less body soreness there. At least, that's been my experience.

"In the end, everybody has to run on the same track," Bainum added. "And you don't have to run. It's just a freak thing that happened. I don't blame anybody. You just have to go on and hope to find another. Although there will never be another Black Bart."